Family hit out at IPCC over death in custody

The police complaints commission is accused of failing to conduct an open investigation. Nina Lakhani reports

What Sean Rigg needed, desperately, was help: urgent medical attention for his serious mental illness. What he got, instead, was restraint. He was taken into custody by police officers who failed to notice his illness. And within hours of being arrested, he was dead.

His grieving family pleaded with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to discover how he died. Four months later, their questions still unanswered, they have accused the IPCC of failing to conduct a fair and independent investigation. The investigators have refused to take even the basic step of interviewing the officers involved.

The family say they have been denied access to information they believe would explain why Mr Rigg, a physically fit 40-year-old man, died so suddenly, despite investigators' pledges to be open. The family's MP, Sadiq Khan, a human rights lawyer, is to meet investigators on Tuesday to discuss his concerns about the case.

Samantha Rigg-David, 38, sister of the dead man, said: "Our family had never come into contact with the police before this happened; our eyes have been opened to the injustice and discrimination suffered by many families at the hands of the police. But even worse is that we no longer believe the IPCC is independent and have lost faith in their investigation."

While Mr Rigg was physically well, he had a long-history of mental illness, and Brixton police had been involved in taking him to hospital on several occasions over the years. He lived in a supported hostel and was well known locally as a musician.

On 21 August last year Mr Rigg became disturbed after suffering a breakdown. Staff at his hostel made six 999 calls from around 5pm, asking for help in taking Mr Rigg to a place of safety. The police refused to attend.

Mr Rigg left the hostel in a disturbed state at 7pm and police approached him after a member of the public raised the alarm. Mr Rigg was restrained, handcuffed and arrested for a public order offence and alleged assault on a police officer. He was carrying his passport in his pocket at the time.

Mr Rigg arrived at Brixton police station in a van at 7.30pm but collapsed before he was transferred to the station. No one spotted that he was suffering from a mental illness or identified him as someone who had previously been detained under the Mental Health Act. A police surgeon and an ambulance attended, but he was pronounced dead at King's College Hospital at 9.24pm.

His family believe he was dead before he left Brixton police station. What exactly happened has proved impossible to establish independently. The family was told there was no CCTV inside the van, and crucial footage from the police station yard is missing. The existence of a camera which overlooked where he collapsed was acknowledged by police only after Mr Rigg's siblings insisted on looking around the station. Police now claim the camera had not worked since May 2008.

Anna Mazzola, of solicitor Hickman and Rose, acting for the Rigg family, said: "The IPCC only agreed to make the disappearance of the CCTV part of the terms of reference following repeated representations on behalf of the family. Despite the manner of Sean's death, the IPCC are refusing to treat the matter as a criminal investigation. Nearly four months after Sean's death, no statements have been taken from the officers involved and no explanation put forward as to what happened on the way to the station."

One of the family's complaints is that they were not informed of his death until almost six hours afterwards. They were not allowed to see his body for a further 36 hours.

Mr Rigg's elder sister, Marcia Rigg-Samuel, 43, said: "We were told there was one visible injury to his face which was described as a scratch. We were then actively discouraged from seeing his body – by the police and the IPCC – but by this point the alarm bells were ringing, so we insisted.

"We were shocked when we saw a clear wound on his forehead and another on the side of his face – these had never been mentioned, and we believe the police did not want us to see them. I think we have been told lies and I think there is CCTV footage that would prove this. There have been attempts to obstruct our search and to cover up what happened to Sean."

An independent pathology report points to a restraint-related death, but the family still awaits the official coroner's report. The IPCC denied them access to the police surgeon's medical notes.

Mr Rigg's death is one of 24 deaths in police custody last year. No fewer than 102 black and ethnic minority people have died in police custody in the past 16 years.

Deborah Cole from the campaign group Inquest said: "We are deeply, deeply concerned about the controversial circumstances in which another mentally ill black man has died and about the subsequent conduct of the IPCC. The family are right to express grave misgivings about this investigation, which so far seems to mirror mistakes of the past."

Ms Mazzola said: "There has been a clear unwillingness to reveal information. This is contrary to the overriding principle set out in the IPCC guidance on disclosure."

Deborah Glass, the IPCC deputy chair, insisted the watchdog has shared information with the family: "We understand and sympathise with their frustration but are sure that they, like us, want a thorough and impartial investigation to establish the truth about what happened to Sean."